Our College came under attack last week. It was an attack on our students, our alumni, our faculty, and our values. It is an attack that continues today on the blogs, in the comment streams, and on Twitter.
It’s time to respond.
Why has it taken us a week to answer the charges contained in a 359-page document (plus another 119 pages or so of background material) financed at a cost of “well over $100,000” by an individual who has not spent more than a few hours on our campus and produced by a 25-year-old organization whose investigators have no first-hand experience with what we teach or how we teach it?
The answer might well be found in “The Offer of the College,” which urges us “to gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work and the criticism of your own.” When the report was made public last Wednesday, the College issued a statement promising to review it, “because we encourage open discourse on the effectiveness of American higher education and because we support academic freedom, which is the essence of a liberal arts institution.” A week later, that review is complete.
Let me be clear and direct: the report by the National Association of Scholars is mean-spirited and personal. It exaggerates its claims and misrepresents both what we do at Bowdoin and what we stand for. This is not just my reaction. It is the considered opinion of many members of our community, including those who ought to know best—our current students and their parents, and alumni who have spent many, many hours in our classrooms and labs, and who describe an experience very different from the one contained in this report.
I will not attempt to address every misrepresentation or factual error in the NAS report. There will be time in future weeks to take these on. Today, I will simply focus on the most egregious among them—the inaccurate statements getting the most “air time” on blogs and through social media.
Among these is Bowdoin is somehow un-American—that our “worldview” and what we teach here are “antithetical to the American experiment” or that “Bowdoin on the whole shows little interest in the West.” Frankly, it’s hard to know where to begin with such nonsense. The American flag flies high over our campus atop a flagpole dedicated to our graduates who died in defense of America in World War I. This memorial abuts another granite structure—dedicated not long ago—honoring those who served our country in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. On the other end of the Quad stands Memorial Hall, built and preserved in memory of Bowdoin students and alumni who fought in the Civil War. We are proud of these memorials and eternally grateful to the people whose names are etched on their panels. We are also proud of the Bowdoin graduates currently serving in our nation’s armed forces and of the young men and women who are inducted into the military each year during public campus ceremonies that immediately follow Commencement. Beyond the armed forces, Bowdoin graduates serve our nation in government and in the law. They are teachers, doctors, artists, non-profit leaders, and entrepreneurs. They are the backbone of our country, and to suggest otherwise is to insult their accomplishments and to demean their significant contributions. We are told by the NAS that “American Exceptionalism” is “a term of derision” on the Bowdoin campus. Yet, this is the same campus that just this year hosted a public performance of the United States Marine Band in Farley Field House and where each year at Convocation, we open the ceremonies by singing “America the Beautiful.”
It’s important that we honor America through memorials and music, but most important is what we teach our students about this nation and its traditions. Perhaps the most repeated criticism by the NAS is that “history majors at Bowdoin are not required to take a single course in American history;” that we do not offer and do not require a general survey course in American history; and that “there are no courses devoted to political, military, diplomatic, or intellectual history except those that deal with some group aspect of America.” Let’s take these one at a time:
It is true that history majors are not required to take a single course in American history, but why is that? Requirements are generally put into place to guide students to courses that they are otherwise disinclined to take. At Bowdoin, we know students interested in history have already studied American history in high school and that they will naturally gravitate to these courses here. Last year, 100% of our graduating history majors took AT LEAST one course in U.S. history. Many took more than one such course. This year, that number stands at 98%. With this level of participation, a requirement is…well, not required.
Quickly on the other two points: we do not offer a survey course in American history because our students come to Bowdoin well-grounded in American history and seek more in-depth analysis. As for the charge that we don’t offer history courses dealing with political, intellectual, diplomatic or military history, a look at our course catalogue would set things straight. It is a charge that is obviously incorrect, since among the courses offered this year alone are:
History 140: War and Society
History 139: The Civil War Era
History 231: Colonial America and the Atlantic World
History 232: History of the American West
History 233: American Society in the New Nation, 1763-1840
History 226: The City as American History
History 238: Reconstruction
Beyond these, our government and legal studies department offers important courses on the American presidency, Congress, the U.S. Constitution, and other areas in the fields of American government and political theory. As our community knows, government is currently—and has long been—the most popular major at Bowdoin, and it is nearly impossible for these students to graduate from Bowdoin without having read the Federalist Papers at least once.
Speaking of courses, a whole lot has been made of another point driven home by the NAS Report. Yes, there are some courses offered at Bowdoin that come with provocative titles. We are not alone in teaching these subjects, which are offered at every elite college and university in America. The one cherry-picked by our critics to make a point is “Queer Gardens,” a first-year seminar proposed (but ultimately never offered) by our English department. Since lots of people have asked, here’s what that course was all about:
Explores how the garden in Western literature and art serves as a space for desire. Pays special attention to the link between gardens and transgression. Also considers how gardens become eccentric spaces and call into question distinctions between nature and culture. Examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces.
Okay, admittedly, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea because it is viewed by some as scholarship that isn’t serious, and there are other courses in our catalogue with attention-grabbing titles and descriptions that may not appeal to every student. But consider for a moment what the students would have actually DONE in this class. They would have read works by Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett, and several other notable authors. In my view, the title and course description are what get you in the door (or not, in this case). What happens next is education. The point is that our students are reading and discussing great literature. That’s one of the important things we do here. Oh, and by the way, the folks at the NAS can exhale—we regularly teach courses that include the works of Spenser!
There are many, many more questionable assertions about Bowdoin contained in the NAS document, but these are the ones seen and heard most frequently in recent days. They are also the points promoted most widely—without investigation or corroboration—by columnists and correspondents using the Internet and social media who have no first-hand knowledge of the College.
So, this is a start. Will we take the time to respond, challenge, or debunk everything contained in this report and promoted by its authors? Probably not. Time is precious these days, as we prepare to graduate an exceptionally-prepared Class of 2013 in just under six weeks. That said, we have the right and the inclination to fight back when we believe it is necessary to do so. We are not a fragile or insecure institution, and we will not abide personal attacks and unsubstantiated tirades by those with deep pockets and a personal or political axe to grind.
In closing, let me restate as forcefully as I can what we stand for at Bowdoin:
We are committed to building and supporting a student body that is representative of America and the world.
We are committed to providing opportunity to those previously excluded.
We are also committed to preparing our students to become global citizens in a global economy and for careers that call for critical thinking, judgment, and principled leadership.
As “The Offer of the College” reminds us, there is nothing wrong with well-reasoned, objective, and constructive criticism. Bowdoin as an institution—and all of us as individuals—can always improve what we’re doing and how we approach learning and education. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to take seriously a vindictive effort such as this intended to harm and discredit this historic college in order to satisfy a personal agenda and retrieve a bygone era.
During this past week, as we have endured “our turn in the barrel,” I have never been more proud of and grateful to our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Bowdoin is a great college, and we choose to move forward, confident in our values and reinforced by our record.